Tuesday, May 28, 2002

City & County of Honolulu

Okino urges City
water services unite

2 city councilmen say a
merger would remove politics
from sewage handling

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

City Councilman Gary Okino says the city Wastewater Division should be merged with the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

According to Councilman Steve Holmes, people overseeing the Wastewater Division want the same thing.

They both agree it would remove politics from the handling of sewage. But that is where the agreement ends.

Okino has introduced a measure that would ask voters whether they want the Wastewater Division placed with the semiautonomous Board of Water Supply. The proposal will get its first airing at Wednesday's Council meeting.

A top official for Mayor Jeremy Harris, whose approval is necessary for the issue to go on this fall's ballot, would only say that the administration will study the plan.

Managing Director Ben Lee said he and the mayor have not discussed the issue with Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger.

Waste-water disposal is now part of the Department of Environmental Services, which is also responsible for solid-waste disposal.

Okino said that consolidating the water and waste-water functions in mainland municipalities has reduced costs by as much as 20 percent.

A merger would also take the politics out of the waste-water functions because the Board of Water Supply sets rates and budgets independently from the rest of the city government.

He noted he and several of his colleagues criticized Harris during the recent budget proceedings for "raiding" $60 million from the dedicated sewer fund to help balance the city's $1.1 billion operating budget.

That money, Okino said, could have been used to start paying for some of the $1.6 billion in anticipated waste-water projects over the next two decades.

Okino said he also believes critical sewer projects have been delayed in recent years in favor of more politically popular facilities such as new parks.

"It provides a measure of protection for that money and makes sure it's spent for the right purpose," he said.

Holmes said top officials at the Department of Environmental Services have told him they prefer moving waste-water functions to the Water Board.

"They're a little frustrated with the politics that go on in the Council and feel like they can get a better shake with an appointed board," he said.

But Holmes, considered the Council authority on public-works issues, said he opposes the merger proposal.

Holmes criticized a "lack of leadership" on the Water Board.

"I've had problems in the past with some of the policies of the Board of Water Supply not being aggressive enough about water conservation," Holmes said.

A merger may not be so bad, he said, if it also called for a newly combined agency to be monitored by the state Public Utilities Commission.

"Otherwise, the public is not protected, no oversight provided," he said.

Okino's plan is endorsed by Councilman John Henry Felix, who has pushed for a merger since he was chairman of the Water Board some two decades ago.

Felix said it is logical for the takeover to occur, noting that the board purchased the Honouliuli Wastewater Reclamation Facility in 2000, for $48.1 million, so that it can recycle sewer water to be sold for industrial and irrigation uses.

"It's a resource that needs to be preserved, and we have the technology in place to appropriately recycle," Felix said.

Okino's resolution, if approved by the Council, needs to be signed by Harris to go on this fall's ballot.

Water Manager Cliff Jamile could not be reached for comment Friday.

In 1972, when Felix was chairman of the Board of Water Supply, Oahu voters approved a City Charter amendment that included merging what was then the Division of Sewers with the Water Board. But the move never was fully implemented because in 1974 the electorate voted narrowly to overturn the decision, thus returning the sewer functions to the Public Works Department that operated under the mayor. There was heavy advertising both for and against returning the Sewers Division to Public Works that year.

In 1998, Harris attempted to fold the Honolulu Board of Water Supply with the then-proposed Department of Environmental Services as part of a reorganization, but backed off following criticism by board employees.

City & County of Honolulu

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